Tories ‘tear up’ English target for half of young to enter HE

Education secretary signals rebalancing towards further education in England after shift in nature of Tory electoral support

July 9, 2020

Gavin Williamson has billed himself as “tearing up” the target for 50 per cent of young people in England to enter higher education and signalled a rebalancing of the country’s post-18 education system towards further and technical education.

In a speech on 9 July, the education secretary confirmed plans for a White Paper “that will set out our plans to build a world-class, German-style further education system in Britain, and level up skills and opportunities”.

The speech, hosted online by the Social Market Foundation, builds on the intense criticism of universities over graduate outcomes and economic benefit levelled by universities minister Michelle Donelan in a speech last week.

In a press release on Mr Williamson’s speech, the Department for Education said that the minister would “call time on the idea that higher education is somehow better than further education and will tear up the target to send 50 per cent of young people to university”.

This is a reference to a target set by former Labour prime minister Tony Blair in 1999 – although his target, already achieved, was for 50 per cent of young people to enter higher education and did not specify university. Many further education colleges offer higher education courses.

Mr Williamson's speech was less direct, instead saying: “When Tony Blair uttered that 50 per cent target for university attendance, he cast aside the other 50 per cent. It was a target for the sake of a target, not with a purpose.”

The minister said he would speak for “the forgotten 50 per cent”.

Mr Williamson also said in the speech: “Of course, we know universities have an important role to play in our economy, society and culture. But it’s clear that there are limits to what can be achieved by sending ever more people to university, which is not always what the individual or our nation needs.”

The DfE release also says: “Higher education will continue to play a vital role in our economy, society and culture, but it is clear that more needs to be done to make sure more people can gain the skills they need to get the jobs they want.

“Thirty-four per cent of graduates end up in non-graduate jobs, productivity is just 4 per cent higher than it was in 2008 and businesses in sectors such as manufacturing and construction report some of the highest skills shortages.”

Universities are likely to feel it is somewhat overstating their economic role to lay blame at their door for the nation’s poor productivity performance since the financial crisis.

And many in the education sector have previously pointed out that Germany’s excellence in technical education is inseparable from the structure of that nation’s economy, which specialises in high-end manufacturing to a far greater extent than the UK’s, which has turned away from manufacturing towards services since the 1980s.

Alistair Jarvis, Universities UK chief executive, said: “To suggest there is an arbitrary maximum number of people who should be able to pursue higher education is denying aspiration – what is important is that every student has the choice to follow the path which is right for them to best fulfil their potential.

“Increasing support for further education is an important move but it would be a mistake to view post-18 education as a binary choice between supporting either higher education or further education. Both universities and colleges have important and mutually supporting roles to meet skills needs in the post Covid-19 economic recovery.

The DfE release referred to plans to create Institutes of Technology, which it billed as “unique collaborations between further education colleges, universities and businesses offering higher technical education and training (mainly at Levels 4 and 5) in key sectors such as digital, construction, advanced manufacturing and engineering”.

After an initial wave of 12 such institutes, the government will later this year “launch a competition to ensure that all of England is covered by an Institute of Technology”.

Josh Hardie, CBI deputy director general, said that “renewed” government support for further education would be “warmly welcomed” by business. But he added that these reforms “must go hand in hand with support for our world-leading and highly respected universities that are struggling so acutely in the face of coronavirus”.

David Hughes, the Association of Colleges chief executive, said: “Today’s speech isn’t about reducing the power and mission of universities, but recognising and supporting the power and mission of colleges alongside universities to meet the education, skills and training needs of every adult across their lives.

“Our current system simply does not support the half of adults who don’t get the chance to study at higher levels. In fact it relegates them to second-class citizens, without the investment and the opportunities to improve their life chances.” 

The fresh approach to post-18 education from the government stems in part from the nature of the Conservatives’ new electoral coalition, which following the Brexit vote and 2019 general election now includes greater numbers of voters in deindustrialised towns in the Midlands and North of England.

As Times Higher Education has previously reported, policy experts have predicted that the changing nature of Conservative support, increasingly tilted towards non-graduate voters in towns, would change its approach to education policy and lead to a greater emphasis on further education colleges – whose budgets had been slashed under previous Tory and Tory-led governments since 2010.

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Reader's comments (5)

Great news. I have waited for a long time to hear something like this. I only hope that it is followed through and fully implemented.
About time. It has been far too long to make all people believe that university education is for them It often isn’t and universities suffer and are forced to offer courses of questionable value. Great to see to embrace an education that serves and develops the strength of many more by creating more applied and economically relevant courses. Don’t forget apprenticeships, though! These along with further education should form the backbone if British manufacturing industry AND other sectors. Please follow this through properly (and not just
Wonderful news. Please note; FE is not just Colleges but includes private providers and partnership providers involved in skills development and education from level 3 to level 7. Apprenticeships from level 3 to Apprenticeship degrees are a big part of this, When it comes to spending money let's be sensible about the use of the existing assets in use in current physical locations. Change the name and the ownership along with a change of use. We should re-purpose the use of appropriate University premises to deliver the new policy and not waste money on unnecessary new buildings.
Good, Universities, especially ex-poly's, might be well placed to benefit from training those that need higher 'trade' skills, Soylent's offerings to the marine transport industry are a potential example. Perhaps the NHS will benefit too, with an equivalent to SEN rather than degree level courses which have kept many potential nurses out, nursing care is more about talking with people and wiping their arses when needed than holding a degree. Especially at the start, many of my now graduate nurse qualified friends started out as SEN's, and they notice a lot of younger degree holding direct entry nurses don't have the desire to care, nor experience, as do their patients.
About 10 years ago the UTCs (university technical colleges) were set up to do much of what Williamson proposes with new institutes of technology. They were partnerships between FE providers, schools, universities and business - but as with governments of all stripes, weren't given enough time or funding to deliver. What will be be different this time?